Wednesday, 27 March 2013

What Could "Left Unity" Mean for the Community Movement?

The other day I happened upon a new Facebook page and website for a group calling itself Left Unity. I was drawn to it because it spoke boldly of its desire to form a new political party of the left, severing for once and for all the irrational political umbilical chord that for so long has joined the British so-called “left” – reformist and so-called “revolutionary” - to the party that is called Labour.

It is by no means the first time such an idea has been mooted, of course. The recent history of our national politics has been littered with left groups which have half-heartedly gone it alone, with varying degrees of unsuccess. The problem has always been the same – the separation from Labour has been from the head but never from the heart, and as such any manifestations of independent activity have invariably been a cry for help rather than a serious and sustained effort to create a lasting left alternative both to the unashamed reaction of the Conservatives and to the capitalist establishment’s safety valve that is the Labour Party.

Left Unity has, from first impressions at least, the outward appearance of being something different. Mobilised around an appeal by television and film director Ken Loach for a new party of the left, it would appear already to have gained some considerable momentum, with a network of local and regional groups to which new names seem to be being added by the day. By any measure, and certainly by any comparison with earlier attempts to achieve the same end, this is pretty big stuff.

Personally I find myself wishing the new initiative every success, but from a safe distance. Although I reject the logic of capitalism and stand four-square with the forces of labour (small “l”) in its various battles I do not consider myself as being especially of the “left”. It’s not that I dislike what it stands for, I just seem instinctively to dislike the people it attracts.

In large part this could be a simple consequence of the treatment that I have personally received at the hands of much of it. A former extreme rightist who rejected unequivocally all things racist and fascist some two decades ago, I still have doors slammed in my face by local so-called “lefties” who seem to share an almost pathological dedication to the cause of keeping alive my 1980s incarnation as an NF rabble-rouser, for reasons which only a qualified shrink would venture to probe. Whilst this causes me no loss of sleep whatsoever it does make for an interesting psychological and sociological study of the mentality of those concerned.

There have, of course, been others formerly of the extreme right who have seen the light and whose bona fides have been accepted by the generally left-dominated anti-fascist movement. So why am I regarded differently?

The only possible, logical answer is that despite my unqualified rejection of racism and fascism I remained a fierce critic of the political establishment, and of Labour in particular (for the simple reason that Labour was the party in power in my own neighbourhood, to which I effectively retreated). There is absolutely nothing else that differentiates me from other former fascists who have gone on to be actively involved in the anti-fascist movement.

So in other words the “anti-establishment” left rejected me because I rejected the establishment! C’est la vie.

This enforced separation between myself and the local representatives of this peculiar tendency in British politics led me to the view, which I have held for so many years, that the “left” in this country is utterly incapable of disengaging itself in its own mindset from the Labour Party – a party which for the most part accepts the Tory austerity agenda, enthusiastically supports capitalist wars, competes with the parties of the right in a perpetual willy-waving contest over who can strike the most macho postures on immigration, and voted down proposals to diminish the power of the House of Lords.

But there is another reason why I do not feel I belong to the “left” and that is its obsession with economic issues seemingly to the exclusion of all else. Yes we should resist attacks on benefits, low wages, diminution of employment rights, privatisation, the dismantling by stealth of the NHS and all the rest of it, but the empowerment of people travels hand-in-hand with the disempowerment of capitalism and that is something that the “left” just never seems to show an interest in. Taking power out of the hands of the bosses and placing it into the hands of bureaucrats and political apparatchiks does not a revolution make.

Yet on the other hand there is something irresistible about the rapid progress of the Left Unity initiative. In this mass communications age it is just about possible to create a really viable alternative without having access to millions of pounds and the Murdochs. What is really needed to make it happen is a vacuum, and the vacuum that exists on the left of British politics with the betrayal by Labour is immense.

What we could feasibly see within the space of a few years is a complete readjustment of the political dynamic, with the right broadly aligned to UKIP and the left organised around something like Left Unity. Whilst I have no brief for UKIP I admit nevertheless to some excitement about the prospect of the old establishment losing its grip in such a way.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Grove Park CPZ Debate - the Anguish of a Disenfranchised Community

It seems our Isleworth ward councillor Ed Mayne continues to be the cause of much angst over in Chiswick, London W4.

Proposals to introduce a Controlled Parking Zone (CPZ) in two streets close to the grounds of Chiswick House are being resisted by a clear majority of residents living in the Grove Park area. Although the Zone is to be limited in its scope those living in surrounding streets fear, with good reason, that the parking thereby displaced into their own neighbourhood will lead in the course of time to calls for it to be extended. This is, after all, what almost invariably happens with Controlled Parking Zones, and it is how schemes which may be cost-neutral to begin with morph into substantial money-spinners for the local authority.

Economically and politically, Chiswick is the ideal milch cow for the London Borough of Hounslow. As well as generally being the borough's most affluent area, it dutifully returns Conservative councillors at every local election, an outcome routinely expected by the Tories and accepted by Labour. For the powers that be there is no point in trying to alter the electoral status quo, and Labour tends to work around Chiswick rather than spending any time trying to make serious inroads into its politics.

On the issue of the CPZ, as one would expect the Tories would appear to be moderately supportive of the larger number whilst remaining mindful that many of those residents of the two streets who are in favour of the proposals are Conservative voters too. Any suggestion that the protest should be escalated has been met with nervous disinterest. Where they have been relatively vocal is in criticising the undemocratic and authoritarian methods by which the Labour Council would seem to be steamrollering the proposals through.

This whole continuing episode is probably the best example we have seen so far of how the disasterous electoral strategy pursued by the Tories at the local elections of 2010, which led to Labour regaining control of the borough, has impacted upon their own constituents. The people of Chiswick are now completely powerless and their councillors can only squeal impotently from the sidelines as the Labour machine tramples all over them and laughs in its wake.

Of course the Tories remain in denial about the role they played in bringing about this sorry state of affairs. Sometimes they even have the nerve to offer tactical advice, delivered one presumes with a straight face, to the campaigning residents. They are helped, one must record, by a profoundly unrevolutionary spirit which self-evidently prevails amongst the citizenry of Chiswick, which is a real shame as potentially they are in many respects better organised and better equipped for really effective community action than residents anywhere else in the borough, with a hugely vibrant local internet community and many active residents' groups.

It remains to be seen whether Chiswick residents will develop their own innovative strategies for resisting the relentless encroachments of the local authority or whether they will continue to place their faith in the self-neutered politicians whose vociferous fence-sitting can surely not remain unchallenged and unquestioned indefinitely by this vigilant but sometimes irritatingly genteel community?

More on this anon.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Chiswick Woman (86) Gets Court Summons for £80 Council Tax

A Chiswick resident who tried to pay an outstanding £80 on his 86-year old mother’s Council tax to cancel a threatened court summons has spoken of his frustration with council bureaucracy.

Andy Pease fell foul of data protection rules when Hounslow Council staff refused to give details as he was not the holder of the account, despite the fact that his mother could not answer for herself. She is blind, and suffers from dementia and arthritis.

The Council has said unless they have permission for others to act on their behalf, legally they can only deal with the account holder. They were willing to discuss the situation with Mr. Pease if he got back in contact, they said and were awaiting further information on the case.

Andy Pease said his mother lives alone in a bungalow provided by Hounslow Council, and he pays all her bills by direct debit from his own account, including her rent.

Last week she received a letter from Hounslow Council informing her Hounslow had applied to Feltham magistrates court for a summons for non payment of council tax.

"This is the first I knew of any outstanding council tax, as far as I was aware Hounslow took any money owing out of my bank account," said Mr. Pease, who then phoned the Council.

"The woman that answered the phone refused to give me any details as I was not the account holder, even though the money came out of my bank account. She insisted on speaking to my mother, who because of her dementia could not answer the security question.

"I explained the situation again and was finally told that my mother’s benefits cover almost all of her council tax apart from £80 per year which my mother should pay. She could not tell me why they had not taken the money out of my account along with the rent. She informed me that the outstanding council tax was £80, but because they had now taken out a summons, the cost would be £283.

"I was told that if I paid the outstanding amount, the summons would be cancelled. I said that I would pay this amount over the phone by credit card. I was then told the lady I was speaking to could not take payment so she said she would put me through to the cashiers, which she did.

"The number she put me through to was an automated line which would not let me proceed until I entered the account number which we did not have.

"I could not go back so I had to hang up. As I had spent 40 minutes on the phone already, I did not have time to call back again.

"I called Hounslow again this morning, and had to go through the whole story all over again. Again I was told I could not pay, because of data protection I asked to speak to a manager. This of course was not possible, but I was told a manager would call me back (they didn't ) so I am now waiting for the court date to be sent."

He said he felt he had "bent over backwards" to pay the money and was prepared to turn up in court and tell his story to highlight the behaviour of the Council.

Hounslow Council have issued the following statement on the matter; “It can be difficult for families trying to help their loved ones in these matters, as legally we are only allowed to deal with the account holder unless, we receive certain information permitting others to act on their behalf. This is an understandable measure to make sure vulnerable residents aren’t open to abuse.

"If Mr Pease provides this information, we would be able to discuss the account with him, as we already do in many other similar cases. We are still awaiting the details we need, but we will contact Mr Pease as soon as possible to arrange for them to be provided.

"In this particular case, no direct debit has ever been set up for the council tax bill, so we had no choice but to deal with the situation as we would with any unpaid bill, including a reminder letter being sent warning that a summons may be issued."

Reproduced with acknowledgements to